Willis, troubadour of the TUC, bows to popular demand: The clown prince of the union movement retires after nine years at the helm. Barrie Clement reports

HAVING endlessly regaled union leaders with rhyming couplets and riddles, Norman Willis finally told them what they wanted to hear yesterday.

This year's annual congress in Brighton is to be his last as general secretary of the TUC. At the age of 60, the tubby troubadour with a low centre of gravitas has finally announced his early retirement after nine years.

'Sometimes it has felt as if I've been nine days in the job, sometimes it seems like 90 years,' he said yesterday. His detractors would concur with the latter.

Mr Willis was seen by many as the comedian on the Titanic. He presided over a period when union membership declined from around 10 million to 6 million. The movement cried out for an articulate champion rather than an affable comic.

Mr Willis has found that there are no prizes for being a nice guy or for being a 'character'. He showed character in another sense when he went to South Wales in the middle of the coal strike and denounced picket-line violence. A noose was lowered over his head from the rafters by militant pitmen.

He was made general secretary during the pits strike and has lived through a series of disasters for the movement, including the Wapping dispute and GCHQ.

Mr Willis, married with two children, was born in Middlesex in 1933, the son of a barber and a laundry worker. He trained as an economist at Ruskin and later Oriel College in Oxford before becoming a speech writer to Frank Cousins and then Jack Jones at the Transport and General Workers' Union.

He became assistant general secretary at the TUC in 1974 - the only 'outsider' to move into Congress House at such a senior level.

The abiding memory will be of Norman 'Ramblo' Willis: the only time he remotely approached 'subject, verb and object' in his pronouncements was when he was telling a joke.

He will also be remembered for his public bar sense of fun. In a particularly gauche performance he once serenaded bemused Soviet officials to a rendering of 'Maybe it's because I'm Ukrainian' in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster.

Trade unionists were seriously concerned that he might delay his retirement after the successful campaign to fan public anger over the pit closures. One union leader, who was preparing to 'have a word in his shell-like' over the possibility of retiring gracefully, said that his performance during the Government's pit fiasco was a one- off. 'Where was he when Britain came out of the ERM, for instance?' Radio and television producers need soundbites, not the desultory nibbles of Mr Willis.

He decided to reveal his plans yesterday following the announcement last week that members of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union had voted to affiliate to the TUC. That was a 'vote of confidence' and a show of unity for which he had worked, he said.

In a statement, Mr Willis said that he was making his decision known now so that nominations could be received to elect his successor at the annual congress in September. Under the traditional 'Buggin's Turn' principle, his most likely successor in the pounds 50,000-a-year job is John Monks, Mr Willis's deputy.

Mr Monks is chalk to Mr Willis's cheese. A graduate of Nottingham University with a love for rugby league, Mr Monks is able to speak on equal terms with ministers, senior civil servants and business leaders. Despite the deep freeze imposed on the TUC by the Government, Mr Monks enjoys ministerial contacts.

Senior union leaders have mentioned such names as Brenda Dean, the former print union leader; John Edmonds, general secretary of the GMB general union; and Jack Dromey, national TGWU officer, as potential successors.

But the present deputy TUC leader fits the bill as far as most are concerned. He is intelligent and articulate, a bureaucrat with a safe pair of hands and not over-colourful.

The new No 1 at Congress House will have a tough time ahead. In the short term there is the Employment Bill that will give workers the right to join the union of their choice. That severely undermines the TUC's role as an adjudicator in membership disputes under the so- called 'Bridlington' procedure.

Then there is the creation of new mega-unions such as the 1.4 million-strong Unison, which call into question the need for a trade union centre. When those problems have been tackled, he or she will have to address themselves to the decline of union membership.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Fans line up at the AVNs, straining to capture a photo of their favourite star
life Tim Walker asks how much longer it can flesh out an existence
Life and Style
Every minute of every day, Twitter is awash with anger as we seek to let these organisations know precisely what we think of them
techWhen it comes to vitriol, no one on attracts our ire more than big businesses offering bad service
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

£65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

£8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable